Parish control will involve 'leap of faith' - Catholic Courier

Parish control will involve ‘leap of faith’

As they dust off a governance model that hasn’t been used in about 20 years, Rochester-area pastoral leaders are proceeding with cautious optimism regarding the future of Monroe County’s Catholic elementary schools.

 One of them, Father Robert Schrader, said it’s just too early to tell if shifting elementary schools from diocesan to parish control will be successful in stabilizing finances, enrollment and parish support.

"I just have this sense part of this is going to be a leap of faith," remarked Father Schrader, pastor of Rochester’s Peace of Christ Parish, which is home to St. John Neumann School. "We’re glad (the school is) ours," he added. "Now we need to find a way to make it work."

"The difference between a crisis and an adventure is in our attitude. We go forward expecting this to work," remarked Sister of St. Joseph Joan Sobala, pastoral administrator of Our Lady of Lourdes, Brighton/St. Anne, Rochester, which will soon assume control of Seton Catholic School located at Our Lady of Lourdes.

St. John Neumann and Seton Catholic are among several schools that will become parish-run beginning in the fall of 2011, according to a Dec. 1, 2010, announcement by diocesan officials. This move is part of a diocesan plan to dissolve by 2012 the Monroe County Catholic Schools system, which has operated the schools since the early 1990s.

Schools and parishes to be affected in the coming academic year were first asked by the diocesan Department of Catholic Schools to submit operational plans. Those entities currently are engaged in such preparations as creating school boards and committees, setting budgets and tuition rates, and holding informational meetings.

Father Schrader and Sister Sobala said many details are still unfolding, since they only became aware this past summer that their schools might become parish-run.

"We never got (a plan) totally together before we were formally notified that it was definitely going forward," Father Schrader said.

Plans also are being quickly put in place at St. Pius Tenth Parish in Chili, where a town meeting will take place in the church at 11:30 a.m. on Jan. 23. Bill Rabjohn, pastoral administrator, said he anticipates a solid level of parish support based on the parish’s long-standing backing of St. Pius Tenth School regardless of how it’s been governed.

"It’s a great opportunity for the parish. Here is one of our largest ministries, and let’s do it with excellence," Rabjohn said.

Financial adjustments

Strong overall support will be needed to ensure that parishes aren’t sapped by the kinds of financial woes that caused more than half of Monroe County’s Catholic schools to close in recent years. For instance, Sister Sobala said that "we are a mouse swallowing an elephant," explaining that the budget and staff for Our Lady of Lourdes/St. Ann parishes are both smaller than the budget and staff of Seton Catholic School.

"There is fear (among parishioners) that this is happening at the cost of being strong and vital parishes. We have to demonstrate that will not be the case, and the only way is to go forward," Sister Sobala said.

Adding to the challenge is that parish-operated schools will have reduced financial support from the diocese due to the change in governance and must somehow make up that money.

"We’ll have to find ways of being creative while maintaining the current services that we have," Rabjohn said.

Steve Oberst, principal of St. Pius Tenth School since 1979, said tuition there is likely to rise in 2011-12, but that a steep increase would not be in anybody’s best interests if it made Catholic education unaffordable. He also observed that the school can only count on parishioner contributions to a certain degree in an era when the economy is depressed, taxes are high and "many parishes across the diocese are struggling to keep their collections up."

Father Schrader said he is still trying to close a $60,000 budgetary gap for 2011-12 and hopes to accomplish that without having to scale back such key areas as computer upgrades and marketing efforts. He also expressed concern about Peace of Christ Parish taking on a school while also maintaining three church buildings (St. Ambrose, St. James and John the Evangelist), and the fact that St. John Neumann is operating at slightly less than half its capacity with just 161 students enrolled.

"Well, it’s a challenge, I must say," Father Schrader remarked, adding that final plans for St. John Neumann School must guarantee long-term success. "It’s not just a one-year fix; we’re trying to do it for the long haul. We hope to be stronger and bigger."

Finances can be a concern even when a Catholic school is operating at or near enrollment capacity. Father Frank Falletta, pastor of St. Lawrence Parish in Greece, said that "it’s going wonderfully" since St. Lawrence School became one of two Monroe County schools — the other is St. Joseph in Penfield — that returned to parish governance beginning this past fall. Although St. Lawrence is nearly full, Father Falletta said that "it’s a struggle to meet expenses. But we’re meeting them."

Making it work

Regardless of the financial pitfalls involved, those interviewed all asserted that the value of Catholic education — along with a close parish-school relationship — makes these challenges all worthwhile.

"It’s a mission; it’s an apostolate of the parish," Oberst said. "I don’t think you can look at any program — youth ministry, faith formation — as just dollars and cents. You have to look at, are you cultivating the faith?"

"It’s going to be a major ministry of the parish, as it was 20 years ago. Our particular relationship between the school and the parish hasn’t really dissolved," Rabjohn added.

"Part of what parish life does is embrace people at every point of their lifelong faith formation. To have a school associated with our parish is to add a degree of completeness," Sister Sobala said.

A strong link between parish and school is imperative for a parish-run school to succeed, according to Paula Smith, principal of the parish-operated St. Patrick School in Owego, Tioga County.

"It can work beautifully," Smith said. "I know it’s a drastic change (in Monroe County). But if your pastor and the whole community are behind it, it will work. You have to be in constant communication."

Like all diocesan Catholic schools outside of Monroe County, St. Patrick has always been parish-operated. Yet Smith said part of her school’s resurgence — it nearly closed in 2008 due to low enrollment — stems from receiving diocesan guidance in developing business and other operational strategies. Meanwhile, Sister Sobala said she’s looking forward to a strong association with the diocesan Department of Catholic Schools even though the diocese will no longer directly oversee Seton Catholic School.

"We have the sense that the diocese is supporting us. We don’t feel that we’re divided off irrevocably from any diocesan involvement," Sister Sobala said.

Father Schrader noted that during a Dec. 13 town meeting at Peace of Christ Parish, participants asked for assurances that a strong diocesan commitment will continue. Yet based on numerous financial pledges and other shows of support that night, parish and school constituents also plan to pull their own weight to ensure St. John Neumann’s success, the pastor added.

"It’s a challenge they’re willing to tackle, and that’s half the battle," he remarked.

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